Professor Robert Kelly Recognized for Outstanding Achievement in Corrosion Science

Materials Science and Engineering Professor Robert Kelly has been named the 2016 recipient of the H. H. Uhlig Award from the Electrochemical Society’s Corrosion Division, another indicator of the exceptional quality of the corrosion research at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The award, recognizing excellence in corrosion research and outstanding contributions to the field, was established in 1973 and, in 1985, named for Prof. H. H. Uhlig, the founder of the field in the United States and a president of the society. Since that time, UVA Engineering has won the Uhlig Award twice, the first time in 2009 when the society presented the award to Professor John R. Scully, interim chair of the Materials Science and Engineering Department.

Although corrosion lacks the visibility of such high-profile fields as computer science or medical research, it is a major challenge for the 21st century. A recent report from NACE International, a worldwide corrosion authority, cited the cost of corrosion to the U.S. economy at approximately $451 billion a year, a figure that has grown significantly as our infrastructure ages and as we require alloys for highly demanding environments.

“We have a 30-year history of excellence in corrosion research,” said Scully, who is co-director with Kelly of the Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering. “Rob exemplifies all the qualities that have helped build and sustain this achievement.”

An Alternative to Find It and Fix It

The AT&T Professor of Engineering, Kelly was recognized for work that spans the continuum of research in the field, from mechanistic analysis of causes of corrosion to models that predict the incidence of corrosion under specific conditions.

For example, in the 1990s, during the Program Depot Maintenance that the Air Force conducts every five years on its KC-135 tankers, it found higher-than-expected rates of corrosion in the lap-splice joints, where the upper and lower halves of the aircrafts’ fuselage skins come together.

“The Air Force followed a find it-fix it approach,” Kelly said. “When their mechanics found corrosion of any sort, they were required to repair it, which meant grinding it out and, if necessary, reinforcing the area.”

The result was that a process scheduled for 180 days was taking more than 400 days by the time the Air Force called on Kelly.

Kelly and his team began by characterizing the corrosion occurring in the lap-splice joints and then determining it was affected by different environmental conditions. They then constructed a science-based model that enabled the engineers to determine which instances of corrosion should be fixed immediately and which could be postponed until later. “Rather than find it and fix it, engineers can now anticipate and manage,” he said.

Kelly took a similar approach to determining the integrity of canisters designed to store nuclear waste, both at the now-shuttered Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada and in the dry cask storage systems that electric utilities are using for their radioactive waste until a long-term solution is approved. Asked to determine the impact of localized corrosion on these canisters over their specified lifespan—measured in the tens of thousands of years at Yucca Mountain and in decades at nuclear plants—Kelly focused on determining the physical constraints on corrosion, such as amount of water, presence of salt and temperature, rather than develop a time-based model.

“In the case of Yucca Mountain, our goal was to help the Department of Energy focus on the parameters they needed to worry about,” he said. “In the case of dry cask storage, the goal is similar: to make sure the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knows which sites require careful monitoring,”

Commemorating 9/11 at the Pentagon

As Kelly points out, the corrosion-resistant properties of alloys is not just a challenge for groups like the Air Force or the Department of Energy; it is a more general concern. Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kelly was approached by the nonprofit Pentagon Memorial Fund to help it choose an alloy for the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, which consists of 184 stainless steel benches—each for a victim of the attack—above a lighted pool of flowing water.

“After testing a number of alloys, we chose one that fit the fund’s budget and that would maintain its reflectivity over a 100-year lifetime despite the presence of nearby highways and associated pollution,” he said.

Kelly’s approach to these challenges is a clue to his selection for the Uhlig Award. Each of these projects, Kelly said, was generated by someone with a question.

“I like to determine the underlying issue that has to be addressed to arrive at the best possible answer,” he said. “Anything else is a Band-Aid.”